I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.
The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.
In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.
And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.
But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.
So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”
Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.
May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!
Today is the first of May. This is also known as May Day or Mayday. In many countries, there are traditional celebrations, including dancing around a May Pole, or leaving a small bouquet of fresh spring flowers on someone’s doorstep. It is meant to be a happy occasion, signaling the arrival of spring flowers after a month of showers and growth– the promise of more growth and greenery after a long winter and cool, wet, spring.
This year, many people have been looking forward to May 1 as a potential “end” to the lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. They are eager for a chance to return to “life as normal,” including spending time in parks and gardens, and celebrating with friends. They long to chat, mingle, and dance with their friends and loved ones in the sunnier, greener weather. Others are just tired of being “cooped up,” and want to get out into the busy marketplaces and public squares. But many leaders (mayors, governors, ministers, presidents, etc.,) are extending the orders to continue social distancing during this pandemic season.
There is another meaning for the phrase “Mayday!” It is an urgent call for help. It comes from the French phrase m’aidez– help me–and is used mostly in radio transmissions from ships in danger. Many people around the world today are, figuratively or metaphorically, calling out “M’aidez!” They are calling on their political leaders, financial institutions, hospitals, emergency workers, and others for help– healing, testing, equipment, food, answers to impossible questions, guidance, and comfort. For many, it feels like drowning in a sea of uncertainty and danger.
Even in times of uncertainty and danger, we have a Faithful and Loving God. When we cry out, “Mayday! Help!”, He is ready and able to answer our call:
4 I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.
5 I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.
Many times in his life, David had called on the Lord, and found him faithful– to protect him, rescue him, bless him, and forgive him. David danced and celebrated God’s provision for Israel, and he also cried out in anguish and bitterness of soul. And in every situation, God heard David’s “Mayday! M’aidez!”
King David’s descendant, King Hezekiah, also cried out to the Lord. He led the entire nation of Israel in celebrating a magnificent Passover feast and a Festival of Unleavened Bread. He also built up and fortified walls that had been allowed to crumble. He strengthened a weakened nation. In spite of his measures, however, the nation was threatened with invasion and destruction by a powerful Assyrian army. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Chronicles+32&version=ESV But Hezekiah, along with the prophet Isaiah, sent up a “M’aidez!” to God, and He answered in a mighty way: 20 Then Hezekiah the king and Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, prayed because of this and cried to heaven. 21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. 23 And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem and precious things to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.
The Apostle Peter called out as he was sinking into the waves. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+14%3A22-32&version=NIV His faith, which made him to want to walk out to Jesus on the water, faltered. Peter knew the danger of open water, he faced such dangers in his fishing boat nearly every day. Without a miracle, he would sink below the wind-churned waves and be unable to make it back to the boat or swim all the way to shore. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” “M’aidez!” And Jesus was there to hold his hand and bring him to safety. Later in life, Peter went forth boldly preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, and spreading the Good News that Jesus Saves! Peter knew from first-hand experience that Jesus not only brought physical salvation from storms, but He offered spiritual salvation, renewal, and hope. In fact, it is in one of Peter’s epistles that we find this verse of hope: “..casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
This May Day, we may call out to God in desperation, or in celebration, or both. But let’s take every opportunity to call on His Holy Name.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, churches are being asked to suspend meetings– worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings–all must be conducted via internet, or some other remote broadcasting option. This will be the first Easter in modern memory when millions of people will be unable to celebrate in church.
I miss going to church. I miss seeing and talking to my friends. I miss singing as a congregation, and praying together. I miss my weekly Bible study group, my Sunday School group, and I miss seeing the kids jumping and twirling and full of energy. I miss visiting the “house of the Lord.”
But there are three very important things this time is teaching me:
I miss “visiting” the house of the Lord, not “dwelling” there. There is a huge difference. As a member of the “body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28) IN Him. I do not “visit” the body– I AM part of the body– which brings me to..
The building is NOT the “Church.” Our church is still operating– just in different ways for the different circumstances. Members are making phone calls, sending e-mails, greeting cards, and creating web content to help share resources, provide encouragement and prayer support, and inspire others. We’ve been praying for those who are battling COVID-19— some are suffering from the disease; others are on the front lines– doctors, nurses, emergency workers, “essential” services workers in groceries, post offices, truckers, and more; some are suffering financially from lay-offs and losses. We are sharing specific names and needs as they arise–church members, neighbors, extended family, needs close to home or around the globe. Even if we are not meeting face-to-face in a particular building, we are still The Church, and I am “dwelling” there.
We have been asked to “shelter in place”– to stay in our dwellings. And that is precisely what God asks of us, as well. We need to dwell in the House of the Lord through this crisis. He is our shelter, our place of safety, and our rest. Instead of seeing this as a negative, or a set-back, we can use this time to celebrate the safety of our eternal dwelling place– safe in the arms of our Savior!
Finally, I WILL dwell in the House of the Lord– I already am a member of the body; I already dwell in unity with the Church; I already live in the presence of God and with His Spirit– someday I will dwell with Him face-to-face in the same kind of intimacy I am missing now with my fellow believers. What I am missing now should cause me to be joyful! This is temporary– what will be is eternal and will never be interrupted by disease, distance, or the imperfections of our current fallen world.
COVID-19 is the visitor– unwelcome, scary, dangerous, yes, but as a child of God, I dwell in the House of the Lord– and COVID-19 can’t change that for me or for anyone else who calls on the name of Jesus! Ever!